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Callaloo 24.1 (2001) 14-17

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Mama and the Confederate Flag

Wallace Best

When my thoughts turned recently to the renewed debate about the Confederate flag and its place in American life, I did what I often do in times of intellectual perplexity. I called my mother. Mama would never consider herself an intellectual or a cultural critic. A woman of modest education, she has always left the headier things to those who, as she would say, "know their way 'round the books." All of my life, she has counted me among that number. What Mama has and I don't, however, is the wit that comes from a youth spent serving silently and nearly invisible in the homes of white families. What Mama has is the wisdom that comes from surviving economic depression, the psychic trauma of migration from the rural South to the urban upper South, and raising fifteen children on deplorably low wages. For all her eighty years, Mama, in the tradition of many black preachers, has the ability to "explain the unexplainable, discern the indiscernible, and unscrew the inscrutable." So, I called her.

But just like so many times before, I didn't get exactly what I was looking for from Mama, only to get much more than I expected. I was looking for a scary story, some highly dramatic personal account that involved a night of terror when the hooded, flag-bearing ambassadors of white supremacy ramshackled the black section of town, breaking windows and lighting fires. Or, I was expecting a story about Mama being forced to help the white woman for whom she worked mend the family battle flag as the woman reminisced about the glorious white past. I was also looking for something definitive from this woman of deep faith, something that would silence the debate and grant me a moral refuge, something like "the Confederate flag is bad." I got none of this. In fact, to my astonishment, Mama had never seen the Confederate flag and didn't know what it was. When I explained it to her, she began to tell me how it could be possible that she had never seen the flag. And it was here that the conversation transformed. A talk between mother and son that was supposed to ease my tensions over this heated cultural conflict (while legitimizing my rage) became one about a less subtle form of racial tyranny, as well as one ultimately about Mama's hope for racial peace.

Mama suggested that she had never seen the Confederate flag during her years in the South because the community in which she lived was strictly segregated, and few people, black or white, ever "crossed the line." The only occasion she would have to see the flag, she surmised, was when someone "stepped out of place," necessitating a show of force and racial dominance. Few people ever dared to do that, and the one time she could remember when someone did step out of place, the man died for it. It was after the Second World War, and A.T. Reed, an African-American soldier, was back home in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Not long after his return, a fellow soldier [End Page 14] introduced him to a white woman. Reed and the woman apparently liked each other and started a clandestine relationship. A few months later, however, the relationship began to deteriorate under pressure. One night Reed went to the woman's home in an attempt to speak with her, perhaps to reconcile. The attempt failed. The woman later claimed she was raped, and an all-white jury found Reed guilty, sentencing him to death. Mama's weakening voice cracked as she told me this. I began to feel grateful that she had never "stepped out of place," and had never had occasion to see the Confederate flag. I envied her innocence.

At the same time, however, I couldn't help but think of all Mama wouldn't know because of her innocence, things critical to know in order to deftly navigate the current debate. She wouldn't know that the...


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